Legal Rights When You’re in Another Country

As an American citizen, you are granted a variety of rights and privileges that are laid out in the constitution and supported by a body of laws. You may be tempted to assume that these advantages are automatically extended to you even if you travel abroad. However, the reality is more complicated.

Keep in Mind

In spite of your American citizenship status, you always need to remember that you are not immune from the laws of the country you are visiting. That’s why it is important to learn about the nation to which you are traveling before you embark.

Legal Requirements For Some Localities

Many nations operate under laws that may seem intrusive or excessive. For instance, you might be asked to fill out a registration card either when you arrive at the airport or at your hotel that requests you to provide your name, passport number, destination, address where you will be staying and the reason for your trip. You may even be required to leave your passport overnight at your hotel in order that it can be checked by local authorities. These criteria are acceptable, and fighting them may arouse suspicion and even result in more serious problems.

Additionally, many countries have laws that can declare you “guilty by association.” For that reason, it is important to avoid the company of people who are involved in potentially illegal behaviors such as drug possession or distribution. If you are left literally “holding the bag” for a local offender, you could spend serious time in a foreign prison. This is definitely not the glamorous holiday you set out to enjoy.

This maxim also applies to your activities during your stay. If, for instance, you come upon a demonstration or protest and get swept up in the event, you just might suffer legal consequences.

Another innocent activity that many tourists engage in involves taking photographs of natural landmarks, military installations and government buildings. Although this is a great way to create lasting memories that you can share with family and friends back home, it may be construed incorrectly by local authorities. Before you are perceived as a potential terrorist, check with officials in the country you are visiting to make sure it is okay to pull out your camera.

General Tips For Drug Laws Abroad

For some travelers, the temptation to have a good time extends to partaking in soft or hard drugs. If you have made this unfortunate decision and find yourself on the wrong side of the law, here are some important general facts to keep in mind:

  • Drug laws vary from country to country. If you are caught with a banned substance, you are subject to the laws of the land regardless of your American citizenship status.
  • In many countries, there is no difference between the penalties for possession and for trafficking.
  • You may not be able to get out on bail.
  • There may be no jury trial available to you.
  • You may be held in pretrial detention for months, potentially in solitary confinement.
  • Depending on where you are, the prison where you are incarcerated may be far below American standards. You may not even be granted minimal comforts such as a bed and toilet.
  • Your sentence may be an extended one. In certain places, you may even face death if convicted.

For these reasons, it is strongly recommended that you do everything you can to avoid any behaviors or personal associations that could raise the suspicions of authorities.

What Are My Rights If I Am Arrested Or Detained Abroad?

Both U.S. embassies and consulates make assisting American citizens who are detained or incarcerated abroad a high priority. The Department of State is committed to ensuring that citizens who are imprisoned or detained outside the U.S. receive fair and humane treatment in accordance with international, domestic and foreign law.

There are several steps you should take if you are arrested or detained in another country:

  • Ask the police or prison authorities to notify the U.S. embassy or consulate immediately.
  • In addition, personally reach out to the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy to request assistance. Actions they can take to help you include furnishing you with a list of local attorneys who speak English; getting in touch with your family, friends and employers on your behalf; visiting you regularly and providing reading materials and vitamins; checking to be sure that you are being treated fairly by prison officials; setting up visits with a clergy member of your choice; and opening an OCS trust for you so that people can transfer funds to you. On the other hand, consulates and embassies are unable to get you out of jail; attest to your guilt or innocence in court; provide legal advice or represent you in court; act as official interpreters; or pay legal fees or medical costs.
  • If possible, notify relatives and friends back home. Enlist their assistance in raising awareness of your situation with your local members of Congress, city officials and religious leaders.

Can You Be Sued In Another Country?

Let’s say you got into an automobile accident while driving abroad? Can you be sued as a result of it even if you have returned home? In short, the answer is yes.

Just as is the case in the U.S., the legal systems of many nations allow their citizens to sue foreigners who have allegedly wronged them in some way. In most cases, you will receive some sort of notice that you are the subject of a lawsuit, its grounds and how you can respond. Even though you are no longer physically in the country, you should not ignore this notice and assume that it will just go away.

Most states, including New York and California, have adopted the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act. As a result, courts in any state that has signed on will honor the judgments made in other countries, and you will be legally bound by them. There are some exceptions:

  • If the foreign court lacked jurisdiction.
  • If you did not receive proper notice.
  • If the judgment resulted from fraud.
  • If the proceedings lacked due process of law or impartiality.

As soon as you receive word that you are the subject of a foreign lawsuit, it is important to get in touch with an attorney who specializes in international law.

American citizenship furnishes millions of people with a full array of rights and privileges. However, this status does not place you above domestic or foreign law. Know your rights, exercise prudence and don’t make any rash decisions during your travels. If you follow this advice, your chances of encountering difficulties during or after your trip will be minimized.